President Obama has always said he wants to look forward, not backward. This, when it comes to the actions of the previous administration, means Obama is content to just identify any problems with George Bush's (and Dick Cheney's) methods on security and intelligence matters, rectify any abuses and correct any mistakes, promise we'll never do it again, and move on. Obama has never advocated -- and, indeed, done what he could to discourage -- any sort of investigation into Bush's actions in response to 9/11 (some of which continued throughout Bush's two terms). Obama's opposition to such investigations has been steadfast and unwavering. He has even (now that he leads the executive branch himself) strongly argued in the courts against any examination of how executive branch power was used under Bush.
This is all understandable. In the first place, presidents always see executive power differently when they arrive in the White House. It's the nature of the job. So we shouldn't be all that surprised when a Justice Department lawyer argues in court in favor of secrecy in the executive branch -- even under President Obama. In the second place, this is a political loser for Obama, and he knows it. He does not want to look like a "sore winner" by digging through all the dirt Bush and Cheney left in their wake. Obama would prefer it if we could all just sweep it under the rug, and trust him when he says he's stopped doing all that bad stuff. "Nothing to see here, folks -- move along," in other words.
But by refusing to tackle the issue at all, Obama faces a steady drip, drip, drip of stories leaking and becoming public. Wiretapping stories, torture stories, and secret CIA covert stories were all in the news in the past week alone. I didn't feel that any of these stories were worth exploring today in depth, mostly because there isn't all that much depth yet. Details are slowly coming out. Until we know a lot more about each of them, it's impossible to draw any conclusions at this point.
Except for a few peripheral comments. Attorney General Eric Holder was the source for one of these stories, saying he is leaning towards appointing some sort of prosecutor to look into detainee abuse. There are several points worth making about this, without going in to too many details (since it was more of an offhand comment, details will be doubtlessly be forthcoming, but mostly don't exist yet).
The first point is that this is how things are supposed to work. Our last few Attorneys General may have caused everyone to forget how the system is supposed to work, so allow me to run it down. The Attorney General is, in essence, the chief prosecuting attorney in the country (a local equivalent would be a District Attorney, or "D.A."). Once appointed, he is supposed to work independently of the White House. The president can give his A.G. broad outlines (such as "Are we doing enough to police Wall Street?" for instance) but cannot order him to do specific things ("Prosecute Senator Beelzebub for corruption, now!"). If the president ever steps over this line (and they do, almost regularly), the A.G. either resigns or threatens to resign. If the president is a lunatic (see: Richard Nixon), then he fires his A.G. for not following his inappropriate orders (see: "Saturday Night Massacre"). The removal of the A.G., either by resigning or being fired, then becomes a political fracas for all to see. But, in normal times, the A.G. is independent. President Obama reminded everyone of this a few months ago, when asked whether he would tell Holder to investigate Bush's excesses, by basically responding: "That's the A.G.'s job, he makes those decisions."
This is the way it is supposed to work. The Justice Department looks into all kinds of criminal wrongdoing, including throughout the executive branch of the government. And it is up to the Attorney General to decide how to investigate such wrongdoing, and whether to prosecute it. Now, Obama has laid down his marker, and said that people (in the C.I.A., for instance) who were following what they considered legal orders will not be prosecuted for doing so. In other words, "I was just following orders" will be an acceptible legal defense (which is problematic in its own way, but understandable politically). Speculation began, after Holder's recent remarks, that what he was talking about were agents and other government officials who had overstepped even the lax guidelines which came out of Bush's Justice Department. But to date, this is merely speculation. Again, though, this is how it is supposed to work -- it's the Attorney General's decision to prosecute or investigate, not Barack Obama's.
The second incidental issue which arose from recent news stories came from the report that Leon Panetta, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, just heard about a program which reported directly to the office of Dick Cheney, and had not been briefed to Congress. Panetta, if the timelines are to be believed, found out about the program a few weeks ago, immediately shut it down, and then briefed Congress the next day. This is all well and good, but raises a very important question (actually, it raises a whole flood of questions), which is mostly being ignored (except for this article on Time magazine's website) -- why was Panetta kept in the dark for four months? As D.C.I., Panetta is supposed to know everything his agency is doing. That's his job. And it took him four months to dig this out. Reportedly, this was because the program was "dormant," which is a partial excuse, but not much of one. As I said, the program itself will raise a flood of questions, and Congress is already expressing an interest in investigating this in both the House and Senate intelligence committees, but it also leads to one very important question -- what else has the C.I.A. been hiding from Panetta (and everyone else, apparently, not named "Dick Cheney")?
Which brings me back to my main point. Before everyone learned the definition of "waterboarding," playschool children talked of (often with an Asian country's name attached at the front) the "water torture." A prisoner would be strapped down, and a huge bucket suspended over their head. This bucket had a very slow leak in it, which resulted in a drop of water hitting the prisoner's forehead every couple of seconds. Its purpose was to drive the prisoner crazy waiting for the drops to hit, to the point where his will would break and he'd spill his guts.
This is exactly the sort of torture President Obama has chosen. If an independent "Truth Commission" had been set up (as Senate leader on the issue Patrick Leahy has been fighting for), it would have accomplished a few things politically -- it would have distanced Obama from the investigation ("The independent commission is looking into that, I am not going to comment until they have finished their work"); it would have been bipartisan, which would have avoided the cries of "Partisan witchhunt!" from across the aisle; it could have offered immunity to lower-level agents in exchange for honest testimony (avoiding the whole "I was only following orders" problem); and it would have gotten the whole story out there in one chunk. Sure, there would have been public hearings of the commission, and it would have generated a story now and then, but one of the reasons for appointing any commission in Washington is to distance yourself from the work of that commission, which would have been possible for Obama.
Since Obama didn't choose this route, one has to wonder if his entire presidency will be distracted by these stories over and over again throughout his term in office. Because things will leak. Journalists still occasionally do their job. This stuff does get out eventually. And, by assuring that each one will be a separate event, complete with its own small-scale media circus, these revelations will happen over and over again, instead of being tied into one all-encompassing investigation. Obama, by trying to politically avoid some of the stickier problems in dealing with his predecessor, may in fact suffer politically by the method he has chosen.
Because the result of the path Obama has charted was on display for all to see last week.
Drip, drip, drip.
Cross-posted at The Huffington Post
-- Chris Weigant